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Advocacy Works: Redeeming Neighborhood Violence—One Block at a Time

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This article was first published in the Banner in April 2014. 

When bullets fly, innocent people die.

In October 2012, a 27-year-old-man was shot and later died because the wrong people showed up at a bar within a stone’s throw from my house. In February 2013, four people were shot at the same bar. I can’t get used to the familiar sights of a crime scene: yellow police tape wrapped around light poles, bullet casings littering the street, and frightened people holding their children close, hoping and praying that they won’t be the next victims.

Violence in our neighborhoods isn’t kept at bay in blighted housing projects or separated by railroads tracks. Violence visits people of all races, locations, and socioeconomic levels. And no matter where it happens, there are usually churches nearby.

So what can we do about the violence in our neighborhoods? How do we avoid either minimizing it with easy answers or throwing up our hands because it overwhelms us?

How One Church Got Involved

Here’s how my church—Roosevelt Park Community Christian Reformed Church—got involved as agents of shalom in our neighborhood.

As pastor of the church and president of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association board for the last 18 years, I strategized with the Association’s executive director and crime prevention worker to gather crime data on the bar where the shootings had occurred. The data showed that the bar was not a good neighbor. It stood in direct opposition to God’s shalom flourishing in our neighborhood: over a two-year span, more than 50 incidents had been reported to police. That allowed us to build a case to have the bar’s liquor license revoked by the city.

The association board began to rally neighborhood residents to fight for streets free of violence. It fought to keep a community police officer, despite budget cuts. The community officer worked tirelessly to convince the business community that violence never learns from its mistakes. It taints everything, spilling over boundaries and causing lost revenue, negative neighborhood perception, and diminished hope. She knocked on every business door and convinced the owners to write letters against the bar. One bar, she explained, could not be allowed to take down an entire neighborhood.

My church wrote a letter against the bar too. As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that our world—including our neighborhood—belongs to God. That means we have to work and pray for human flourishing for all people.

Meanwhile, a suburban gentleman wrote a guest column in the local newspaper. He objected to our call to revoke the liquor license of the bar. He said closing the bar would not stop the violence.

I responded with a guest column to counter his view. I wondered if he could answer my questions. Why can’t my neighbors walk the streets without fear of having their hopes and dreams snatched away by stray bullets? Why can’t my neighbors’ children experience the joy of playing soccer without running for their lives because of violence?

I believe that my neighbors are entitled to flourish just as much as my suburban friend’s are. When we live in a community, our neighbor’s problems are our problems. An attitude of individualism, on the other hand, doesn’t contribute to human flourishing. As pastor and author Tim Keller rightly concludes, “When a [neighborhood] perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders.” Shalom and justice are always connected to the heart and soul of the gospel. Justice doesn’t back down from violence.

Redeeming Violence

One day I got a call from my neighborhood association director to come quickly to her office. I rushed down the street to find out the news. The bar’s liquor license was before the city commission; its fate was to be decided. Instead, the director reported that the owner of the bar had quietly given up the license. An agreement with city and police meant that no bar could ever set up shop at that location again. Those of us who had gathered to find out the city commission’s decision cheered and cracked open bottles of Coke and Sprite. I looked around the room at my neighbors—people who believe that violence doesn’t have to have the last word in our neighborhoods. As my good friend and former professor Neal Plantinga wrote, “Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans.” Violence needs to be redeemed. Reformed Christians have a well-stocked world-and-life view and a ready mandate from our Master Jesus to risk reclaiming God’s property from the wiles of the world and the devil.

And what became of the bar? In October 2013, five members of my church were prayer-walking in the neighborhood. They noticed that the old bar was open and ventured in to see what was going on. In its place was a brand new beauty salon. The owner had moved in to the space because she needed more room for her bustling business. The owner invited the church members in and gave them a grand tour. One of them asked permission to pray for her business. She gladly agreed. They grabbed hands, and two young church members prayed for the success of the new business, for the owner, and for God’s protection.
Redemption happens one block at a time. Shalom breaks out whenever God’s people take seriously the fact that our world belongs to God. We can make a difference if we are willing to get involved.

Christians take resurrection seriously. Author Eugene Peterson once said, “Resurrection only comes from graves, tombs, and emptiness. It is where God is. He’s in the middle of it. This is God’s characteristic action in the world—through waters, through the valleys, and through the grave.”

Do you believe our Lord is still in the business of creating resurrections? Violent neighborhoods can be redeemed when the resurrection people of God enter the arena, knowing that every square inch of the world’s real estate belongs to God.

Digging Deeper

Here are some resources on how churches can provide leadership in their community. Consider choosing one or more for small group study and discussion.

Practical Ways to Curb Violence in Your Neighborhood
  • Join your neighborhood association board.
  • Sponsor block parties with your neighbors.
  • Mentor a child or teenager.
  • Partner with an urban church or organization near your home.
  • Report crime.
  • Start a prayer ministry against violence in your church.
  • Teach a child to read or learn math.
  • Plant a garden and show kids how to tend it.
  • Attend a Christian Community Development Association conference.

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